TORONTO – Drew Doughty is a basketball fan who had grown a bit tired of the NBA’s crystallized power structure. Then came a crazy redistribution of talent over the summer that renewed his interest level considerably.
"It’s kind of cool because I was kind of getting annoyed with just like how the top teams, they just crush everybody," Doughty said Monday. "I’m looking forward to hopefully Golden State not being as good this year."
It is not unlike how someone might feel after seeing Pittsburgh, Chicago and Doughty’s Los Angeles Kings lift the Stanley Cup eight of the last nine seasons. The NHL’s hierarchy is static, changed only it seems by the bounce of lottery balls and the passing of time.
Doughty has the power to change that.
As a pending unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019, he could choose the road less travelled. The NHL hasn’t had a superstar in his prime test free agency since, what, Marian Hossa in 2008 and 2009? Perhaps there’s even a debate to be had about whether Hossa should be labelled a star.
Doughty won’t even be 30 when he’s eligible to hit the open market. A right-shooting, game-changing defenceman who would instantly transform a contender into a favourite.
He piqued considerable interest here in Toronto over the summer when he appeared on TSN Radio and said: "We would all want to play here," in reference to players who grew up in Southern Ontario, "Especially with the team, the way they’re getting better and stuff like that."
What often gets forgotten about that interview is Doughty then went on to discuss how uncomfortable he’d be dealing with the unrelenting off-ice spotlight in a red-hot hockey market. That isn’t a concern for him in the idyllic oceanside community of Hermosa Beach he now calls home.
For as much as the gap-toothed, easy-going Doughty is an original, he doesn’t seem like a good bet to buck convention and walk out on the Kings. For starters, he dropped $6 million on a South Bay compound last year. It’s also important to remember Los Angeles has been his team "since the day Gretzky got there" – even though the deal with Edmonton was made more than a year before he was born.
"I think you just get to a comfort level," Doughty said, when asked why NHL stars avoid free agency. "You’re just used to being in that city and used to everything about it. That’s why we don’t want to leave. And we want to show that loyalty – they showed a lot in believing in us and drafting us or picking us up early as young players and I think it’s a big honour to play for the same team for your entire career."
The 27-year-old chose his words carefully while standing in the visitor’s dressing room at Air Canada Centre on Monday morning. He’s still walking back the comments he made in that radio interview and didn’t want to start any more fires.
Those who know Doughty well point out that he’s a small-town guy at heart. He was raised in London – not Toronto – and an under-rated aspect of playing for the Kings is that players get to live in the tight-knit communities near the practice rink rather than the city itself.
Still, unwittingly or not, Doughty dropped some crumbs. If you’re inclined to search for hidden meaning in his words, he said the only negative thing about playing in Los Angeles is that most of the hockey world doesn’t stay up late enough to see you play.
He also labelled the Leafs a budding contender in need of better defensive performance.
"To be honest with you, I never ever watch them play," said Doughty. "But I see the highlights and whatnot and you see that they’re in games where it’s 6-4 or 6-3, whatever it is, so they’re giving up over three goals a game it seems like to me. I don’t know if that’s the truth. If they can improve defensively – but that’s not just on their defence, that’s on their top forwards playing good defence, too, that’s how you create a good defensive team."
Of Patrick Marleau, a long-time nemesis in San Jose who chose to sign in Toronto last summer after 20 years with the Sharks, he said: "Sometimes it’s good for a change. He hadn’t won a Cup in San Jose yet … and maybe he saw a bright future in this team kind of like everyone else around the league is seeing. He wants to win a Cup, that’s probably why he left."
It would be shocking if the Kings ever let him go free.
Doughty will likely look to raise the bar on P.K. Subban’s $72-million, eight-year deal and is anxious to add more hardware to his two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. The organization needs to show him it’s capable of contending again.
In turn, he can expect teammates to apply some pressure in a bid to get him to sign an extension.
"I’ll pick my spots," said captain Anze Kopitar. "I don’t think there’s really any secrets to L.A. right now, he knows them all. We’re just going to make sure that he stays with us."
Ultimately, a decision like this one comes down to the individual. Prevailing industry trends only matter if they fall in line with what Doughty believes is best for his future.
Even though he and the Kings have looked like a perfect match since the 2008 draft, there are always some unknowns.
"I’m comfortable in L.A., I know everything about L.A., I love the players, I love the staff, I love the organization," said Doughty. "I would love to play there my whole career, but you never know what could happen."